The best science fiction isn’t just futuristic robots and post-modern ideas: sure, I love those things as much as the next person, but what makes a sci-fi tale memorable is using those ideas in concert with social, cultural or political ideas that we can all relate to. Who better to do that that Gilbert and Mario Hernandez, two of the Los Hernandez brothers popular for the Love & Rockets comic book series.
In the new Dark Horse miniseries Citizen Rex, the two brothers have joined forces to reveal the life of the titular character. Citizen Rex was arguably the most famous robot of his time – life-like, and a celebrity to the highest power. But twenty years ago he was rocked with scandals, arrested and ultimately de-activated. That was one of the key elements which brought rise to an anti-robot movement in this future Earth, but the details of Citizen Rex’s rise and fall prove to be irresistible for a gossip columnist named Sergio Bauntin. Bauntin, who’s research provokes the ire of both the government and more illicit organizations like the Mob, is pulled deeper when sightings of the long-lost Citizen Rex puts him on a trail that could lead him to places he may not want to go.
This miniseries brings social commentary and sci-fi head-to-head, and we talked with the brothers about this series – which debuted this week on comic shelves.
Newsarama: Let’s start with an easy one, guys – what are you working on today?
Gilbert Hernandez: Just finishing up the 6th and last issue of Citizen Rex. This one is taking longer than the others for some reason.
Mario Hernandez: I am currently working on some proposals to pitch to keep myself in the game and I have finally started a graphic novel project that I've been writing for quite some time.
NRAMA: How did the idea for Citizen Rex come about?
MARIO: I'd had such a good time writing the "Tales of Somnopolis" back up stories in Mr. X. I had this and some other stories in a pile that sat for some time. I was going to try and get it into Love & Rockets but the rockets part was fading into the remarkable body of work that the boys were doing. Years pass and when our dear buddy Diana at Dark Horse approached us for a project, I felt it was the perfect time to put it out there.
NRAMA: How would you describe the story of Citizen Rex, Mario?
MARIO: Pretend a benevolent South American millionaire approaches me and offers me a chance to make a mid-budget movie in his native country.
The only restrictions are that it be science fiction and his really curvey and hot girlfriend has to be in it. It goes straight to VHS and cult immortality. This is that movie.
But really, it's a fable about technological times and our need to exploit it, ignoring the humanity that should be a part of anything we do.
NRAMA: Gilbert, from your perspective drawing the book, what do you think of the story and how it develops?
GILBERT: When I'm drawing somebody else's story, I rarely think of the plot but instead concern myself with expressing the character's body language when they're using certain words.
NRAMA: How would you compare drawing more futuristic and imaginary scenarios as in Citizen Rex with more realistic work such as Love & Rockets?
GILBERT: I've drawn like this in L&R a lot; it gives a chance to use my imagination and stretch my limited drawing abilities.
NRAMA: A classic staple of comics, and fiction in general, is the use of writers or reporters to act as the lead into a story – particularly one that covers strange or supernatural grounds. Why do you think it’s so prevalent, and tell us about your decision to use it – in this case a gossip blogger named Sergio Bauntin – on Citizen Rex?
MARIO: Reporters, police, some scientists, they all have jobs that lend themselves to getting out of the office to deal with the masses and all they entail. I wanted Sergio to be a reporter but responsible only to himself and not some gruff editor. (I guess a nice one would make for a boring story.)
NRAMA: And Sergio – tell us about him. When people hear the word “gossip columnist” they conjure up a certain kind of image of a person – but who is he really?
MARIO: He's basically a guy who comes from a well to do background that found he has a talent for investigating urban legends and rumors, while taking on the hip-wahzee and powers that be.
NRAMA: How does Sergio luck into finding out about Citizen Rex?
MARIO: Sergio had written about Rex years before when Rex was new and a celebrated as a phenomenon. Now word on the street is that he's back.
NRAMA: The book itself revolves around a robot celebrity who was deactivated twenty years ago on the heels of a scandal and arrest. Can you tell us more about Citizen Rex – why the robot was a celebrity, and what tarnished his image?
MARIO: In this universe, CIT-RX-1 is the first prototype android of his kind and I wanted to explore our obsession with celebrity. If a real Rex was to emerge, hucksters and media would make him into a super celebrity. The famous and not so famous would all want to have their picture taken with him, hang out with him, want his child... So being a robot at heart he wouldn't be able to distinguish between say, politicians and gangsters. (It seems our electorate doesn't either.) So the general public and powers that be in the political and private sectors can't seem to get him to fall into line for their needs, so he is brought down by juicy scandal and conspiracy.
NRAMA: And the design of the titular character, Citizen Rex; can you tell us about that, and what you were thinking in making the robot?
GILBERT: I wanted him to look like a friendly mannequin, at once scary but also having a warm and gentle aura about him. On TV or in movies, it always bothered me that human replicants always looked like, well, actors. I thought they should look more 'fake' with ever so slightly restricted movements. Data's natural skin folds were distracting to me.
I believe that in real life if there were an android lurking about like Rex, people would be divided in how they perceived him: some would be afraid and some would find him compelling. Let's hope the readers are in the latter group!
NRAMA: This book definitely has a sci-fi vibe – can you tell us about the world in this book that makes it different from our own?
MARIO: The story is set in a large South American Metropolis that has robot companions, flying cars, etc. Other than that people and their foibles are the same.
GILBERT: I simply like to draw a world that is a futuristic version of now. I am free to create the look of the buildings and clothing and cars etc.
NRAMA: Gilbert, when designing the look of the buildings, cars and people in a future version of now, what kinds of things are you thinking about that leads you to draw the futuristic designs that you do?
GILBERT: I like working in a style from old time SCI FI that never quite happened in real life; as in Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS, but with a more cartoony flair.
NRAMA: Another interesting aspect to this is the political turmoil around the idea of robot rights – that is human rights for robots. Is this something you’ve thought a lot about, as a fictional element?
MARIO: Right now, the latest undervalued and misunderstood segment of society is gays. If we had robots, that would probably be the next logical group. If prosthetic limbs all of a sudden became the rage and people started mutilating themselves to have them, there would be purists who would want everyone to stay pure and well, maybe robots would want the same thing.
NRAMA: Gilbert, how would you describe the collaborative process between you and your brother Mario?
GILBERT: He writes it, I draw it. I'm using as many visuals that he came up with as I can, but I'm more comfortable using my own designs. He's probably not so crazy about that, but I try to compromise to his wishes as much as I can.
NRAMA: And what do you say, Mario?
MARIO: Well, the cool thing is, we kinda know each others strengths and weaknesses so he trusts me to come up with whatever ludicrous story, plot devices or characters I want and I know that he will usually make these things better. It was great to get his finished art back during the writing of the later issues and have it inspire me to embellish or change the mood of the thing. He is also very patient with me, whew!
Citizen Rex #1 is on sale Today, July 29, 2009, from Dark Horse Comics